Coming Out!

OK, here is the headline - I am a Colourist!
There was a time in my salaried career when I had to speak about ‘unconscious competence’ - when someone doesn’t think about what they are doing, they just do it, and do it satisfactorily. (the point being that moving it into the conscious mind can improve it.) ……. Now it seems that label fits my painting.

I had been painting for about five years when a fellow-artist popped in to see a little
exhibition of mine.

“Oh, Alastair,” he exclaimed  “I didn’t know you were a colourist….”

OK, so I had heard the term, especially in relation to the ‘Scottish Colourists’, but
only as a vague background notion.

Put simply, a colourist is an artist whose work has use of colour as the most significant
feature. The distinctive element which helps to mark out their work.

Looking around the 20-odd paintings I had on display that day, I realised that the observation was
spot on – I use colour a lot. The paintings were a mixed bunch, large and small, several landscapes but some with people or things, oils and watercolours.

While it would be neat to argue that as the largest part of my art education was in
Edinburgh and was delivered by some pretty stern teachers who had themselves
been rigorously trained in the classical skills of drawing and painting, and I spent hours wandering through the galleries and museums gazing on the paintings on those walls that maybe this ‘Scottish Colourist’ tradition somehow permeated my being – so that this is what I believe a painting should look like ?? …..Hmmm.  I don’t put that up as a viable theory. Plenty of other people like me wandered around those same galleries and work in very different styles.

Here is my own take - think about handwriting.

Everybody has their own unique hand – even siblings taught in the same schools
by the same teachers have completely different writing. There is a whole field called Graphology where an expert can look at a person’s handwriting and tell them things about themselves that are not otherwise visible (I know, it happened to me!). 

The same must be true of the core essence of an artist’s style –  their individuality comes through somehow, even if that artist has benefitted from rigorous training (which I have not.)

When I was able to go back to painting,  I knew I wanted to work on landscape and was of course aware of the work of the giant of Welsh landscape painting, Kyffin Williams, but his work is much too dark and moody for me - all that black and brown - masterful capture of north-west Wales and very evocative (and clearly very successful) - but not me. 

So, if my handwriting story is valid, my cheerful positive outlook on life in general comes through in bright colour. 

Of course I can, and do, think about and change the colours on my palette to suit a particular painting to support whatever is the story I want that one to tell, but, as my friend spotted - line up several and the common feature confirms that label - I am a colourist!

Back to ‘unconscious’ competence - this realisation, the move to consciousness, is just like switching on the light in a dark room - I can now see, and this means I can adjust.

The flamboyant exuberance of my instinctive palette is, I realise, not always a good thing.
The challenge is to use it wisely.
The two images of the same painting here illustrate that - my instinctive brightly coloured initial work has been toned down - to be more realistic, frankly …. which goes to another topic - is the Artist ever the best judge of what works or not?? 

[Later comment: Proof of the pudding ….. the revised version has been sold……. that should tell me something.]

{The setting here is ‘The Folly’, above Pontypool park, looking southwards toward the distant Severn estuary. This painting began in a plein-air competition, but the weather was awful so my piece was only half-done and rightly got nowhere in the competition.}

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Buying Art

On buying artwork …..

The whole business of buying a picture is distinctly different to that of choosing furniture, curtains or any other aspect of decorating your home (or ‘interior design’ if that is where you are!)

Because there is an ever-present underlying belief that somehow that picture on the wall will, one day, be worth a fortune.
In the back of our minds is the tale of the cafe owner in the south of France who accepted pictures in payment for the tab of his regular client, Vincent van Gogh.
I suspect that there are probably quite a number of us artists who work at producing art with the same faint hope niggling away - one day this painting will be recognised for its true worth.

Even though we all know, when we are cold and business-like, that these hopes and beliefs are very improbable, millions of people still buy lottery tickets when they know the chances of winning are 14 million to one against.
There is a pleasure about holding that ticket until the draw is finished, hoping that maybe this will be my week, and that same pleasure can add to our enjoyment of an original painting that we have chosen.
This is clearly not true of the big department stores’ sections labelled “Art” where there are factory-produced prints of nice pictures being sold in between the curtains and the wallpaper. This stuff will have absolutely no value as soon as you take it out of the shop - but, to be fair, I grew up with Monet’s poppy fields on the wall - a valueless print, but still a good representation of a Monet.

We ‘spend’ money on carpets, furniture and curtains, but we ‘invest’ in art, and we probably spend a lot more on those other aspects than we invest in the art. But we buy a new car much more often than we change the artwork on the walls (some of us buy a new HOUSE more often than we change the artwork), so choosing wisely is important.

In one of my exhibitions, a lady came in and said she was looking to buy a large oil painting … I tried to remain calm and professional and suggested she take a look around. She did that, then returned to gaze at one, and called me over. We chatted about it, me trying hard not to be the second-hand car salesman, but she was a definite prospect, until….. “No, it won’t go with my carpet.”
It has taken me some time to come round to the realisation that she was right and that leads to Rule 1 in this Guide - the artwork on your walls has to fit with the look you are creating in the room.

Rule 2 is that you must enjoy looking at the piece. If it is going to be with you for years and years, you must gain pleasure from gazing at it.

From my point of view, of someone creating and selling art, this is the cold business rationale for why some art sells while some doesn’t.
But - as I say above, the art market is not cold and rational - there is the ‘lottery ticket’ idea which flows from fashion - some artists are ‘hot’.
There are thousands of people producing original art creating a market which offers original work of good quality covering every imaginable subject. The technical quality of most of that is excellent, and yet - some sells for £100, some for £10,000.
There is an enormous iceberg-shaped distribution graph, with thousands of us striving away at the bottom, selling work for whatever someone is willing to pay for it. At the other end, there are those whose every scribble is snapped up and auctioned for huge sums.
The middle zone of this distribution is busy and competitive, Curators and Gallerists use their skill to judge what will be hot and gamble their careers on choosing which artists, or which styles will sell next year.

There was a time in the past when I had to sit through many many meetings with investment analysts looking after vast sums of a pension scheme. Chatting to one of those, I sought advice on stock-picking for the ordinary citizen. His advice was simple, and I believe it relates just as much to choosing art. He said - “Use your own judgement. If you can see that a high street retailer is struggling while another is always busy and popular - you can see which to invest in.”

- And so - Rule 3 - Use you own judgement. Buy art that you like, that will give you pleasure.

On Taste

Some people enjoy landscapes

Some people enjoy eating these!

The idea was edgy 50 years ago, today it is only mildly eccentric

Diversity is marvellous. Who would want us all and everything we see, to be the same?

But - it is often difficult to understand WHY - why do some people enjoy eating deep fried Mars Bars? Some people enjoy gazing at very realistic pictures, while others prefer their stimulation to come from concepts.

Personally, I cannot imagine eating a Mars Bar that has been coated in batter then sunk in a deep fat frier. I also find some art that was cutting edge when it first appeared to be little more than mildly eccentric today.

I have to accept that there are trends, though - look at the number of young men who are now proud of their beards, or young couples who insist on dressing their young babies in absurdly expensive clothes because they carry designer logos - both are concepts that I find completely bewildering.
While diversity is great, there must be an instinct amongst us to feel that we belong with the tribe, we seek to conform to norms and standards shared by people we respect, or whose respect we crave. So the decisions about how we choose what to hang on our walls, and hence what art work, if any, we choose to purchase, will be complex.
I have never understood why anyone would buy a book purely because it is (allegedly) written by someone who was once a famous catwalk model, and the same doubt applies to artwork created by ageing rockstars or retired actors. The rationale has to be that those works will give the buyer something to talk about with those friends and might somehow garner a notch more esteem in the tribe.

Take that line of thought forward and it would suggest that my paintings are more likely to become more sought after if there was some story associated with my name that would give future owners of those paintings something to talk about - Cut off my ear? Deep-fry the paintings? Hang them in the Oval Office? Make them so ridiculous they will gain coverage?

Or maybe there are people out there amongst the billions of us sharing this earth who will want to look at a picture because you like it rather than because of something odd about the artist?

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